Monday, February 9, 2015

Sian Prior on Ander Monson's "Voir Dire" and figuring out what's at stake

Out the front of my house stands a eucalypt whose bark is the same flesh-pink as those giant human babies sculpted by Ron Mueck. At least, right now it is. Sometimes the bark is as grey and slit-scored as a medical student’s cadaver. Every day there is an imperceptible change in the colour of the tree and sometimes months pass before I notice the transition. About twice a year the slits peel back and the tree does a slow-motion striptease for me, shedding its curled fragments all over my garden. In between long stints at my desk I head outside to sweep the dry scrolls off the path. It is a comforting Sisyphean ritual.

I have been observing this gum tree through my office window for nearly three years now, ever since moving into my new home. If I look left from the computer screen there it is, leaning away from the wind’s embrace. If I turn my head to the right I see a piece of paper stuck to the wall beside my desk, covered in bold text. The text is a long quote from an essay by Ander Monson called ‘Voir Dire’ and it begins with two questions.
How often is something actually at stake in essays, in memoirs, in most of the non fiction I read (and perhaps write), I wonder? How often is there actual risk involved, invoked? 


Inspiration has become such a flaccid word. It has been so degraded by careless over-use that reading (or writing) it induces in me a faint nausea. The thesaurus offers up a bunch of insipid synonyms (stimulate, motivate, persuade, encourage, incite) but none quite replaces the original.

To breathe life into inspiration (pardon the pun) I look to its other meaning: to inhale. When in doubt, return to the body. The body’s response to the world. The body’s manifestations of the mind’s travails. Sitting at my desk these past three years, writing a memoir about shyness and grief (about how it feels to live inside a shy body, to grieve inside a breathing body) I found that by looking first to the left and then to the right I could inspire and be inspired. A bare-skinned tree for whom shedding layer after layer is as natural and uncomplicated as breathing should be for humans. And a long draft of fresh words, an astringent for the thoughts flowing from my brain to the screen. 
The action of telling is fine: kudos for you and your confession, your therapy, your bravery in releasing your story to the public. But telling is performing, even if it seems effortless. 


As a child my favourite game was hide and seek. I loved the strategizing, the mental measurement of small spaces, tall curtains, bulky bedclothes. I loved knowing that someone was searching for me. I loved the performance of being lost. Most of all I loved those moments just before my pursuer gave up on the search. The idea that I could draw out the suspense and then end it. I could choose when to reveal myself, and self-revelation would be followed by elation.

Monson’s essay ‘Voir Dire’ is about being lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. It is about the way memories peel off and fall away, leaving us vulnerable to mis-rememberings. It is about trying to find the ‘truth content’ in the stories we tell ourselves about ourselves. My memoir is about my attempts to make, or find, or prove, or approve of, my true self. Whatever that means.

When you are shy your natural state is in hiding. Just the thought of revealing yourself is enough to induce the anxiety at the heart of shyness: fear of negative evaluation. Your instinct is to cover up; your fear, your embarrassment, your deep certainty that you are unfit for human company. Even while you are in hiding, though, you long to be discovered. Like the human forms hidden under Michelangelo’s marble blocks, you wait for someone to chisel you out from under your rigid casing of self-consciousness. If you are lucky you will occasionally find a friend or lover with an artist’s eye and you will be discovered, and known.

With memoir, though, waiting doesn’t work. Writing is an act of will and life writing can be an act of painful self-exposure. You must choose to reveal yourself, with no guarantee of a happy ending.
I guess I want awareness, a sense that the writer has reckoned with the self, the material, as well as what it means to reveal it, and how secrets are revealed, how stories are told, that it’s not just being simply told. In short, it must make something of itself.


I’ve never met Ander Monson. If we did meet I would probably blush because that’s one of the tricks my shy body plays on me. Blushing, according to cultural theorist Elspeth Probyn, is the body’s signal that it has an investment in the encounter. It is the physical evidence of how much you care about what others think of you. (When you’re shy, you spend way too much time worrying about what others think of you.) It is shame written on the skin. Shame can ‘fall back into humiliation’, Probyn writes in Blush: faces of shame. But shame is also ‘positive in its self-evaluative role: it can even be self-transforming.’
The other reason I might blush is because (although Monson doesn’t know it) our words have been intimate. The bold text stuck on my wall has beckoned my words out of hiding and onto the page. No, beckon isn’t right; too gentle. Watching me through the textual prism of his essay, Monson has curled his lip every time my story failed to ‘make something of itself’. Each time I edged politely away from telling about (performing) my shame, my embarrassment, my humiliation, imaginary Monson has closed his copy of my memoir and flung it into a corner of his imaginary office. And every time I wrote and re-wrote the sentences that made me blush, every time I forced myself to apply ‘a little fucking craft’ to my raw confessions, imaginary Monson nodded approvingly then left me alone.
When I first began writing my memoir I could not answer the questions posed by Monson in ‘Voir Dire’. I didn’t know what was at stake, what was being risked with the telling of this story. After all, shyness is not a life-threatening condition. It is a common temperament trait that manifests as social anxiety that leads in turn to physical and mental discomfort. Curiosity about the causes of my discomfort led me to an understanding that at the heart of shyness is a profound fear of rejection.
Then my partner announced that he no longer wanted me.
Suddenly I was immersed in a fear so deep it made breathing almost impossible. Lies were confessed but more lies were told. Love was professed but love was withdrawn. I was lost in the no man’s land between fact and fiction. Now, though, I knew what was ‘at stake’: surviving the thing I feared the most. Not just surviving it, but rising far enough above it that I could write about it ‘with a little fucking craft’. That I could ‘reckon with the self’ even while the self was at risk of disappearing.
Last year Shy: a memoir was published in Australia. Many reviewers expressed their surprise at how self-revealing the author had been, how she had stripped herself bare for the reader. The memoir’s rawness made them feel voyeuristic. The word brave came up often in the reviews and this shy memoirist fought hard not to interpret that word as negative evaluation; is brave not code for over-reaching or self-indulgent? Imaginary Monson raised an eyebrow and murmured ‘kudos for your bravery’. I felt more exposed than ever before. Then I began hearing from readers.
One by one their emails came in, shy missives from people like me, people who have spent a lifetime struggling with an irrational fear of other people. They wrote about their trembling hands and their blushing cheeks and their shortness of breath. About the abject terror they felt at parties, surrounded by people they’ve never met. About feeling so exposed they wanted to hide away where no one could find them. About their Sisyphean battles with their own temperament. And they wrote about how it had felt for them to read their story in my book.
It was like listening to my own brain talking.
It was so empowering to hear someone talking about the things I have felt over the years and which continue to plague me.
It put a few more pieces of the puzzle together for me about my personal life.
It occasionally made me sick in the stomach with a sense of recognition of my Self.
Thank you for your courage.
This week I took down the Ander Monson excerpt from my wall. It has served its purpose. I have stopped thinking that perhaps brave is code for self-indulgent. Who knows if this memoir has ‘made something of itself?' By peeling back the layers of my experience I have made something useful for some other (shy) individuals. And breathing has become easier.

Works cited:
Probyn, E. (2005) Blush: faces of shame, Sydney, UNSW Press.
Monson, A. (2010) ‘Voir Dire’ Vanishing Point: Not a memoir. Minneapolis, Graywolf Press.
Prior, S (2014) Shy: a memoir, Melbourne, Text Publishing.
Sian Prior is an Australian writer and broadcaster. She teaches nonfiction and journalism at RMIT University and has run workshops for a range of writers’ centres. She has had short stories and essays published in the Sleepers almanac edition 7, Visible Ink, Meanjin literary magazine, TEXT journal, Rex Journal of New Writing and the Penguin anthology Women of letters. Her first book Shy: a memoir (Text Publishing) was released in June 2014.

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